Love Among the Ruins review – beauty and brilliance on the high-rises of Sheffield

S1 Artspace, Sheffield
This exhibition – which movingly captures day-to-day life on a Sheffield estate from the 60s to the 80s – tells a compelling story about changing Britain

Arriving in Sheffield by train, among the first things you will see is Park Hill – a brutalist megastructure that once housed more than 1,000 inhabitants in one of the largest social housing schemes outside London. Along with its sister estate Hyde Park, Park Hill looms large over Sheffield’s landscape and history, its utopian ideals and eventual demise mirroring the rise and fall of industrial cities in the 20th century.

It is within these concrete walls that S1 Artspace has built a new home, transforming the old garage block into a gallery and artist studios. Fittingly, S1’s first exhibition – Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future – is a photographic celebration of life on the estates. Bringing together the images of Roger Mayne and Bill Stephenson, the survey begins as Park Hill opened in 1961 and ends at Hyde Park in 1988, shortly before it was due to be partially demolished.

In a glass case in the centre of the gallery, official correspondence underline the social and architectural importance of the project. A 1965 issue of the Architects’ Journal announces that Park Hill is “almost as un-photogenic as the London Underground” adding that “close-up it is a neutral framework drawing life only from its inhabitants”.

There is an irony to reading this at a Park Hill photography exhibition, but the writer is spot on when referring to the inhabitants. These estates might be the context, casting stunning shapes into the backdrop, but it is the people that bring these images to life.

Neighbours socialising on the upper floor deck in 1961.
Men are almost absent ... neighbours socialising on the upper floor deck in 1961. Photograph: Rights Managed/Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library

Stephenson’s full-colour photographs find the eyes, the friendships, the mood of the residents. One woman clutches snacks, a girl idles on a swing, two young boys lean over breathless as if interrupted mid-race. Light is used to excellent effect, creating a cinematic stillness that contrasts with the depressing reality of the crumbling 1980s housing estate in the background.

The images shot in the 1960s by Mayne are less intimate, but more hopeful. Park Hill had only just opened, and the residents appeared to be learning to live in the space. We see the milkman navigating several floors, children racing around the playground, women playing bingo, neighbours socialising on the decks. Noticeably, men are almost entirely absent from Mayne’s collection.

Aside from the beauty of the photographs, the brilliance of this exhibition is in its ability to tell a wider story about the social context of Britain at the time. The arrival of men into the frame in Stephenson’s work in the 1980s is presumably connected to the rise in mass unemployment – the main reason these ambitious housing projects failed. Lack of work led to lack of funds to pay rent, leaving the council with little to pay for repairs: a scenario replicated all over the country.

What about the people who used to live there and appear in the photographs? Curator Laura Clarke confirms that a number will attend, and she has created space for them to add their own photographs to the display. In 1988, when Stephenson was taking his last photos and many residents were being rehoused, it looked like the end was nigh for these kinds of estates. But 30 years later, with Grade II-listed status and various renovations in the pipeline, Park Hill becomes a spot for hopeful imaginings once more.


Hannah Clugston

The GuardianTramp

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